1917 Espionage Act

Chapter 30, Title 1, 40, Stat. 217

  • Since the 1798 Sedition Act expired, the United States had no federal legislative that address seditious activity.
  • The act primarily focused towards protection of military secrets
  • 1918 amendment, “Sedition Act”
  • Upheld in three Supreme Court Cases: Schenek v. United States (1919), Frohwerk v. United States (1919), Debs v. United States (1919)
  • Charles Warren, primary author
  • Submitted to Congress in April, passed in June; months of debate focused on meaning of the first amendment

Title 1, Section 3:

“Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, to the injury of the service or of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $ 10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both”

Rabban, David M. “The Emergence of Modern First Amendment Doctrine.” University of Chicago Law Review 50 (fall) 1983.

Stone, Geoffrey R. “Judge Learned Hand and the Espionage Act of 1917: A Mystery Unraveled.” University of Chicago Law Review 70 (winter) 2003.

United States, Statutes at Large, Washington, D.C., 1918, Vol. XL, pp 553 ff.
A portion of the amendment to Section 3 of the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917.


Sedition Act, 1918
From The United States Statutes at Large, V. 40. (April 1917-March 1919). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919. 553-554.

NB: Both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act (passed, 1918) were repealed in 1921, but major portions of the Espionage Act remain part of U.S. law (18 USC 793, 794) and form the legal basis for law concerning most classified information.. The “Espionage Act” and the “Sedition Act” however as named, no longer exist.

The U.S. Sedition Act

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